Several years ago the speaker at the annual Carolinas Boxing Hall of Fame banquet failed to show. Sitting at the front of the room was Humpy Wheeler, a longtime boxing benefactor and fan.
As forks clanked against plates and glasses tapped against tables, Humpy finally stood and began to talk. He saw a boxer in the back of the room, called his name and told what he knew of the man’s story.
Humpy worked his way around the Speedway Club ballroom, telling the story of almost every fighter. The athletes, most of whom had been forgotten long ago, were thrilled to be acknowledged in front of everybody by the great Humpy Wheeler.
Humpy knew the world from which they came, and he knew how tough they had to be to get through it. His words were heartfelt and warm, and when he finished, the boxers stopped throwing punches in the air and brought their hands together and some even cried.
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I was sitting next to Humpy and asked him when he knew what he was going to say.
"I didn’t," he said.
Most of us think of Humpy as a brilliant salesman whose flashy promotions offer lots of explosions but never blow up. But he’s so much more. He’s made thousands of folks feel important because they were important to him.
He is the best of what Charlotte has.
And I can’t believe he will announce today that he is retiring as president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
The idea of a race, at that track, without him, is unfathomable.
Humpy is 69, but only once have I seen him look his age. That was in 1999 after an IRL race in which debris from a crash killed three spectators and injured eight.
The racing community is a family and, in Charlotte, Wheeler is its patriarch. He took the deaths personally, and I didn’t know if he could ever be Humpy the promoter again.
But that’s who he is.
He understands what every businessman should. Customers are not obligated to buy. Promoters are obligated to give them a reason to. So Humpy did.
Long before the race, there was always a motorcycle or a school bus in the air or an outhouse in flames on the ground. Never discount the value of a flaming outhouse.
The lights Humpy installed that enabled racing to move to prime time. They were not the result of due diligence with focus groups. NASCAR was about to yank the all-star race from Charlotte. It wanted to know what Charlotte could offer that others could not.
Lights! Humpy came up with the concept, says a confidante who was in the meeting, right there for the first time.
And if the story isn’t true, it should be.
Humpy has many passions, among them cycling and water. He decided to combine the two and had a bike built that he could ride on the lake. It was exquisite until it sank.
But he’ll have time now.
If you see a guy in a bike helmet peddling furiously a few hundred feet from shore, tell him it’s not the same without him.